A big shoe dropped today in the ongoing scandal concerning allegations that the British newspaper News of the World hacked the cell phones of more than perhaps 4000 British celebrities, murder victims and ordinary citizens: the 168-year-old Sunday paper will print its last issue and close its doors this coming Sunday.
The announcement was made this afternoon by James Murdoch, Chairman of NoTW's British corporate parent, News International, amid charges that NoTW staffers actually bribed police officers and might have interfered with a murder investigation. Murdoch's statement said, in part:
The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.
Image: Wolfram Steinberg/DPA/ZUMAPRESS.com
News of the World's troubles began in 2005, when Scotland Yard was summoned to Buckingham Palace to look into suspicions that Prince Williams' cell phone had been hacked. As the Guardian's interactive timeline details, police traced the tampering to a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who turned out to have been hired by NotW's royal editor, Clive Goodman. They were convicted and imprisoned in 2007.
Their editor, Andy Coulson, resigned. Coulson went on to a career as a political advisor, and until this week, served as communications director for Prime Minister David Cameron. According to the Guardian, Coulson was arrested this evening, and a "second former senior journalist" at the paper will be arrested in a matter of days.
According to the Guardian timeline, after 2006, investigators would find that NoTW's phone hacking practice had been widespread, including celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant, victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist attack on the London tube, crime victims, police officers and members of the military. While all of this heightened the pressure on NoTW, it was the revelation this week that in 2002, when Brooks was the paper's editor, NoTW hired a private detective to intercept the voicemail account of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, who turned out to have been abducted and murdered. In an email to her staff published July 6 in the Guardian, Brooks denied knowledge of these actions, but said she was "sickened" by the allegations,
Not just because I was editor of the News of the World at the time, but if the accusations are true, the devastating effect on Milly Dowler's family is unforgivable.
Our first priority must be to establish the full facts behind these claims. I have written to Mr and Mrs Dowler this morning to assure them News International will vigorously pursue the truth and that they will be the first to be informed of the outcome of our investigation.
The mounting scandal was too much for advertisers, who began fleeing in droves. The controversy also nicked parent company News Corp's stock price, which closed at 17.43 dollars per share, down .229% from the day's opening price of 17.53, according to Bloomberg.
The revelations prompted an emergency hearing in Britain's Parliament, calls for an independent prosecutor. Among the questions that investigators and government officials want answered is just how much NoTW's top editors and senior management knew about the hacking practices. There's particular interest in knowing whether James Murdoch and former NoTW editor Rebekah Brooks were involved. Brooks is now Chief Executive of News International. In a 2003 hearing, she said that NoTW had paid police officers for information, only to be cut off by her colleague Andy Coulson:
During yesterday's Parliamentary debate, Labour MP Tom Watson called for a police investigation of Murdoch and Brooks:
The Guardian is running live updates.
Meanwhile, industry observers are wondering what this widening scandal will mean for News International, a leading subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. News Corporation owns the British newspapers, the Sun and the London Times, along with the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the New York Post and HarperCollins publishers.
James Murdoch is the Deputy Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, and is widely assumed to be the heir apparent to his father's vast media empire. The younger Murdoch's principal responsibility of late has been to shepherd News International's pending acquisition of satellite television service BSkyB through Britain's regulatory process. British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt said today that a decision on the proposed merger probably wouldn't be handed down until September, but insisted that the phone-hacking scandal did not contribute to the delay.
Both Rupert and James Murdock expressed confidence in Rebekah Brooks, who began her career as a feature writer for NoTW and has risen to the senior ranks of the News Corp empire. She is described by the Hollywood Reporter's Mimi Turner as a "close confidante of the Murdoch family" and a valued protege of Rupert Murdoch himself. According to a statement by the 80-year-old patriarch of the News Corp empire published in Mashable:
"[R]ecent allegations of phone hacking and making payments to police with respect to the News of the World are deplorable and unacceptable. I have made clear that our company must fully and proactively cooperate with the police in all investigations and that is exactly what News International has been doing and will continue to do under Rebekah Brooks’s leadership.”
For his part, James Murdoch, 38, expressed confidence that, Brooks "had neither knowledge [of such activities] or directed them," according to an article in today's Wall Street Journal. Despite the apparent vote of confidence, the UK Telegraph's columnist Damian Thompson opines that Brooks is being set up to take the fall for James Murdoch, should it be necessary.
The UK Guardian: Full list of victims identified so far
PC Magazine: How did News of the World Hack Victims' Cell Phones
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